Not enough space to social distance? Why cities should ban cars and make streets walk/bike only

Manchester, car-free. Image: Andrea Sandor.

I was over the moon when Boris Johnson laid out of the rules of lockdown. Without a balcony or garden, I expected to shrivel under an Italian, Spanish, or French-style lockdown-cum-prison-sentence. I rejoiced that the UK government understood how essential being outdoors is to physical and mental health. Now, however, households have received a letter from the PM warning that lockdown measures could be tightened if necessary.

While there’s no doubt some have flouted social distancing rules, my guess is the vast majority are doing their best to stay two metres apart when out and about. Those who live in crowded cities, however, don’t always have the luxury of space to do this.

Here in Manchester a friend of mine lives in Ancoats, the city’s fashionable new quarter with new apartment blocks but no public park. Unsurprisingly, residents have been taking their daily exercise at New Islington Marina, where it doesn’t take too many to overwhelm the area’s thin strip of nature. My friend’s toddler nearly toppled into the water after a close pass with a jogger attempting to maintain social distance from someone else.

It would be a mistake to tackle this issue by banning outdoor exercise, however. Research tells us what we all know intuitively: time spent outdoors boosts the immune system, reduces stress and anxiety, and improves sleep and focus. It’s critical for getting the population through this crisis in reasonable shape. 

This is why cities around the world are closing roads to traffic so the public have more space to safely walk, run, and cycle. Last week, New York City closed four major roads precisely for the reason of “promoting social distancing and giving people more walking space”. Although the governor had called people failing to follow the social distancing guidelines “arrogant” and “self-destructive”, he recognised the answer wasn’t to clamp down further but to open up space to enable social distancing outdoors. Other American cities have quickly followed suit, with streets being closed to traffic across the country.

Cycling has also taken off under lockdown, with bike shops experiencing a boom in business. After witnessing a surge in cycling as commuters took to their bikes to avoid public transport due to Covid 19, NYC created new pop up bike lanes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Meanwhile, Mexico City is considering similar measures, and Berlin has widened bike lanes. Bogota is leading the way with the 47 miles of additional cycle lanes they quickly built in response to the crisis. These cities have recognised the potential of the bicycle for commuting and exercise; with fewer cars on the road, expanding cycling capacity is a no brainer. Here in the UK, bike shops have made headlines for their free bike hire schemes to NHS staff.

No UK city, however, has yet taken the step of closing roads to cars, despite a nearly 75 per cent drop in car use since lockdown began. Cities in the US are also still resistant. In Massachusetts, Cambridge City Council delayed a vote on closing a parkway to cars after a minority of councillors objected. One councillor argued encouraging people onto the streets conflicts with orders to “shelter in place” (that is, American for ‘lockdown’), while another made the absurd argument that perspiring runners could endanger senior citizens they pass.

Apart from the obvious health benefits already mentioned, another important reason to close streets to vehicular traffic is to protect pedestrians and cyclists from speeding cars. Empty roads have led to an uptick in speeding that poses a far greater risk to public safety than sweaty joggers. Reckless driving also risks overstretching the NHS even further. This is also why many are arguing speed limits should be reduced.

In cities like NYC and Bogota, some suggest the closed streets and new cycle networks could become permanent after lockdown ends. The coronavirus could be the shock required to reclaim the streets for people, accelerating a trend already taking place around the world. This would help maintain improved air quality levels and move us away from a car-dependent and congestion-ridden society. 

In the immediate future, UK cities must give more streets over to people so city dwellers can weather this storm. Rather than bring in more restrictive lockdown measures and ban our exercise, the first move must be to free up more space for people to safely get outdoors and maintain social distance. Other cities around the world are doing it. When will the UK? 


The future is here: Register now for Barcelona’s New Economy Week

Barcelona New Economy Week (BNEW) starts this Tuesday with the goal of turning the Catalan city into the "global capital of the new economy".

BNEW runs from 6 to 9 October, with registration remaining open throughout the event, offering insight from 350 speakers on how businesses can bounce back from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It will feature top speakers from the business sectors of real estate, logistics, digital industry, e-commerce and economic zones.

The hybrid, business-to-business event – which is taking place in physical and virtual forms – is organised by Consorci de la Zona Franca (CZFB) and will showcase the way in which Barcelona is preparing for the post-Covid world and the "new economy". It is the city’s first big business event of the year and aims to help revitalise and restart the local economy.

“BNEW will be the first great event for the economy’s global recovery that will allow the redesigning of the productive fabric,” says Pere Navarro, state special delegate at CZFB. “It is an honour to have the participation of renowned professionals and attendees from all around the world.

“As we are not in a position to do a proper ‘in person’ fair, we decided to adapt by creating a disruptive and useful event in this way to relaunch the economy.”

The conference will encompass five interconnected events incorporating real estate, logistics, digital industry, e-commerce and economic zones. More than 8,000 professionals from 91 countries from all over the globe will take part virtually. A further 1,000 delegates are expected to attend the five events in person. Over 200 speakers will take part physically, while the rest will give their talks via a digital platform especially created for the unique event. An advanced digital networking platform – using artificial intelligence – will cross-reference the data of all those registered to offer a large number of contacts and directly connect supply with demand.

The conference will also be simultaneously broadcast in high-quality streaming on six channels, one for each of the five interconnected events and an additional stream showcasing Barcelona’s culture and gastronomy.

BNEW will take place in three venues in the city: Estació de França, Casa Seat and Movistar Centre. All are open, digital spaces committed to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda. Estació de França will host the BNEW Logistics, BNEW E-commerce and BNEW Real Estate events, while Casa Seat will be home to the BNEW Economic Zones event, and the Movistar Centre will host the BNEW Digital Industry.

Some 36 companies are sponsoring BNEW, and 52 start-up companies will take part and present their highly innovative products and services. A further 128 firms will participate in BVillage, a kind of virtual stand where they can show their products and schedule meetings with potential clients.

Highlight sessions will include: "the era of humankind toward the fifth industrial revolution," by Marc Vidal, a digital transformation expert; "rational optimism," by Luca Lazzarini, a commercial communications specialist; and "future smart cities’ challenges and opportunities," by Alicia Asín, a leading voice on artificial intelligence. Sandra Pina will also talk about how sustainability is transforming us, Jorge Alonso on the humane future of cities and Pilar Jericó on how to face changes in the post-Covid era.

BNEW is described as a new way of developing your know-how, expanding your networks and promoting innovation and talent.

“Networking is always one of the main attractions of the events, so to carry it out in this innovative way at BNEW – with the high international profile it boasts – is a great opportunity for companies,” says Blanca Sorigué, managing director of CZFB.

Readers can register for BNEW for free via this link using the discount code BNEWFREE.